By Meryle Secrerst
Excerpted from the forthcoming book Modigliani: A Life, by Meryle Secrest, published by Alfred A. Knopf.
Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920) was a charismatic figure about whom legends began to accumulate long before his death. His creative power, striking good looks and extravagant way of life set him apart even in Paris’ bohemia at the turn of the century. A new, full-scale biography, Modigliani: A Life (Knopf, $35), due out on March 4, dispels many of the Modigliani myths. The author, Meryle Secrest, has published numerous biographies of art-world figures, including Bernard Berenson, Salvador Dalí and Kenneth Clark.
In this exclusive excerpt from Modigliani: A Life, we pick up the story in 1907. The Italian-born painter and sculptor has been living in Paris for a year, and the money his indulgent family sent with him has run out. He has found his way into the same circles as Picasso, Braque, Utrillo and Apollinaire, but is still in search of his artistic direction. Modigliani has no dealer and cannot sell enough work to make a living, so he finds himself depending on the charity of a fellow Italian, the café owner Rosalie Tobia.
Rosalie Tobia was owner of a tiny restaurant, Chez Rosalie, on the rue Campagne Première, narrow, smoky, and dimly lit, reeking of boiled cabbage, which she ran with her son Luigi. While she stirred the soup with a wooden ladle, Luigi, in shirt sleeves and wrapped in a blue apron, would be drying glasses and dishes with a filthy rag. Rosalie had posed in the nude for Bouguereau, Carolus-Duran and Cabanel, and had had lovers. At that stage it was impossible to imagine, since she was completely shapeless, with sagging breasts, a dirty dress, and some sort of net or Neapolitan kerchief covering her stringy hair.
Chez Rosalie advertised itself as a crémerie, serving café au lait and chocolate, but was, in effect, a kind of personal charity. Rosalie would trudge to Les Halles before dawn each morning to buy the day’s provisions, returning on the Métro with a sack on her back. She had a quick temper, one that concealed a warm heart. Any stray dog or cat at the door was sure of a meal. She also fed mice and the rats in nearby stables, to the exasperation of her neighbors. Starving artists were another specialty. She would assemble a group at one of her four marble-topped tables, disappear into her minute kitchen, and appear with an enormous bowl of steaming spaghetti, then bang it down in the middle of the table. There would be cheap wine and few leftovers. Those who could pay, did. Those who could not, ate anyway.
Lunia Czechowska, who knew Modigliani in the last years of his life, explained that Rosalie had her protégés but Modigliani was in a category all his own, “her god.” He liked the Italian dishes she favored with plenty of oil and would say, “When I eat an oily dish it’s like kissing the mouth of a woman I love.” If he had nowhere to stay he would bed down on sacks in the back and, on good days, help Rosalie peel the potatoes and string the beans. On bad days, she would try to get him to pay his bill and he would reply, “A man who has no money shouldn’t die of hunger.” That would start a fight. According to Czechowska, Modigliani’s solution would be to start talking in French, which Rosalie barely spoke, and that would end the matter.
Payment was simple: another drawing, Rosalie complaining all the time that she had too many already. The legend, probably true, is that she kept them, covered with grease, in a kitchen cupboard, the rats gnawed away at them, and when she thought of cashing them in it was too late. But then, art appreciation was hardly Rosalie’s strong point, despite the Modiglianis, Kislings, Picassos, Utrillos, and the like on the yellow-stained walls. The Russian Cubist painter Marevna (Marie Vorobieff) tells the story that, to atone for some of those free meals, Modigliani once painted a fresco on one of her walls. Rosalie was so disgusted that, next day, she made Luigi cover it up with white paint.
Gino Severini, the Futurist painter, recalled that he was having dinner one evening in a Montmartre café when Modigliani appeared, sans le sou and looking very hungry. Severini invited him to join him, and Modigliani ordered a meal. Severini, however, had no money either and was eating on credit. As the end of the meal approached Severini became more and more anxious. What was he to do? Modigliani knew him well enough to know that, once under the influence, Severini would collapse with laughter. So Modigliani quietly slipped him a small amount of hashish. It was an instant success. When the bill was presented Severini immediately saw the funny side. He smirked, he giggled, he let out a belly laugh. It really was a joke. It was a riot. He cried with laughter. He was doubled up. He almost rolled on the floor. Evidence that he made a total spectacle of himself was not long in coming; the owner threw them both out.
Modigliani was exhibiting, trying to sell his work, and looking for a dealer. No longer was the Salon, that fortress of the artistic establishment, the only place an artist could exhibit, or even the Salon des Réfusés, established by the Impressionists in the 1860s. Now there was the Salon des Indépendants, established by such artists as Georges Seurat, Odilon Redon, and Paul Signac. And there was yet another anti-establishment venue, the Salon d’Automne. The creation of a prominent architect and writer, Fritz Jourdain, the Salon d’Automne attracted a socially prominent crowd when it opened its doors in October 1903. At the Petit Palais, Proust, in white tie and tails, mingled with the politician Léon Blum and the aristocratic Comtesse de Noailles. It was a success on every count and became at once a major goal of every young unknown. In 1907 the Salon accepted seven works by Modigliani: the portrait of his friend the German artist Ludwig Meidner, a Study of a Head, and five watercolors.
Again, nothing sold. But in this case, it hardly mattered. The event also exhibited 48 oils by Cézanne, the master of Aix who had died the year before. His watercolors were concurrently on view at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. Modigliani was taken by storm. “Whenever Cézanne’s name was mentioned, a reverent expression would come over Modigliani’s face,” the art historian Alfred Werner wrote. “He would, with a slow and secretive gesture, take from his pocket a reproduction of ‘Boy With Red Vest,’ hold it up to his face like a breviary, draw it to his lips and kiss it.”
Modigliani was always sketching portraits of his friends, and once at Montmartre he joined the legions of “café artists” who made the rounds in the hope of finding willing sitters. Their methods varied little, according to Sisley Huddleston, an English writer who wrote about Montparnasse and Bohemia in the years between the wars. The artist, portfolio under his arm, would enter the café, size up the situation, and then wend his way through the tables. He was likely to stop hopefully and smile. At the least look of enquiry he had drawn up a chair and begun work. From long experience he knew the subject would be a lady, preferably wearing a splendid hat to which he would give close attention. If the artist had done his work the portrait would be flattering, the lady delighted, and her escort perfectly willing to buy. Most artists, Huddleston said, were lucky to find three willing subjects a night, and if they all bought he was even luckier.
Modigliani could be seen almost every night at the Rotonde, with his nonchalant walk, his blue portfolio always under his arm, and then “drawing ceaselessly in a notebook the pages of which he was forever tearing out and crumpling up,” wrote Francis Carco, a novelist and friend of the artist. Conrad Moricand, a painter, author, and astrologer, often watched him at work. He wrote that Modigliani would look with concentration on the face before him and then begin to draw with an incisive pencil. “His working method was always the same. He would begin with the two essential points, first the nose of his model, which one finds emphasized in all his work, next the eyes, with their different polarities, then the mouth and finally the outline of the face, delicately indicated by cross- hatching.” As he began work his handsome face would contort itself into the most frightful grimaces and he would be deaf to everything going on around him, including the constant jokes and teasing. “He was usually good for four or five drawings like this, sometimes more, that were superb. The rest were usually dissolved in drink.”
It took seven more years, but in 1914 Modigliani finally found a dealer. He was Guillaume Chéron on the rue la Boétie, a small, round, fat man who is portrayed by Modigliani with a bulbous nose above what passes for a moustache. Chéron began life as a bookmaker and wine merchant in the south of France and transferred to pictures after he married the daughter of Devambez, a well-known dealer, and moved to Paris. Chéron knew nothing about art, and most memoirists paint him as boorish as well as ignorant. But he needed clients, realized the importance of publicity, and sent out booklets extolling the virtues of buying art as a financial investment. All that Chéron required were paintings, as cheap as possible. Those were the days when dealers collected stables of artists and paid daily stipends to get the work. Modigliani received 10 francs a day. Chéron provided a studio, paints, brushes, canvas, a model, and the necessary bottle of brandy. The studio was in the basement, leading to several lurid accounts of Modigliani’s incarceration in a dungeon with a single window, locked in until he had produced a painting. Since the “basement” also contained a dining room where Chéron and guests lunched every day, the account seems as fanciful as most of the other reminiscences about Modigliani. He certainly did not complain about his quarters. He was absolutely delighted to have a job. “Now I’m a paid worker on a salary,” he told his friends. He and Chéron soon parted company, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Max Jacob, one of the many fascinating characters in the circle of Montparnasse in those days, had arrived in Modigliani’s life. Picasso biographer John Richardson wrote, “The pale, thin gnome with strange, piercing eyes . . . was a Frenchman—brilliant, quirkish, perverse—with whom [Picasso] found instant rapport . . . [H]e was infinitely perceptive about art as well as literature and an encyclopedia of erudition— as at home in the arcane depths of mysticism as in the shallows of l’art populaire. He was also very, very funny.” Jacob, a poet, artist, writer, and art critic, knew and liked Modigliani, and the sentiment was returned. Jacob had studied philosophy, could recite poetry with as much confidence as Modigliani, was addicted to ether and henbane, and was an alchemist. He had introduced Picasso to the Tarot and probably did the same for Modigliani. He was also adept at palmistry and famously had read Picasso’s hand and perhaps Modigliani’s as well, though there is no record of this. But his main gift seems to have been as a facilitator, with a vast network of friends. Hearing that Modigliani and Chéron had parted ways, Jacob had an inspired idea: he would introduce him to Paul Guillaume.
Like Jacob, Guillaume came from a modest background and, also like Jacob, was born with an innate aesthetic sense, rising like a meteor from an entry-level job as a clerk in a rubber-importing company to a collector of African statues and then an expert on primitive art. He was still only in his early 20s. On the other hand he had met the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, who immediately sensed his unusual abilities and introduced him to the world of artists and sculptors. Most of them were looking, as was Modigliani, for someone who instinctively appreciated and understood their work and had the wit to promote it. In that respect Guillaume was heaven sent. Aspiring art dealers usually started business in a modest way in the rue de Seine on the Left Bank with the goal of eventually reaching wealthier clients on the Right Bank.
Guillaume, who did not have any time to waste, started in the rue de Miromesnil, “a neighborhood dominated by the opulent, historic, institutional galleries,” as the art historian Marc Restellini has written. It was the maddest folly from a business viewpoint, since artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Derain had already found their dealers, but for unknowns it was an enormous piece of luck. Somehow Jacob, like Apollinaire, was convinced that Guillaume would become famous, as indeed happened with remarkable suddenness, and he decided to introduce the two men. The trick would be to have Guillaume meet Modigliani as if by accident. There are conflicting versions of this story, but they agree on some details. Jacob set the scene with care. He had a date to meet Guillaume one afternoon at the Café du Dôme. Modigliani, as agreed, would arrive ahead of them and make a show of passing his drawings around. His table would be nearby. Jacob was convinced that Guillaume would soon “discover” him.
All of it happened as Jacob planned. Guillaume drifted over to Modigliani’s table, liked the drawings, and sat down. From here the versions differ. In the first, when asked if he had any paintings to show, Modigliani curtly said he did not. No doubt Modigliani thought of himself as a sculptor, but after having gone to all the trouble to stage a rendezvous it is hardly likely that he would have brusquely rejected the invitation he had been angling for. The second version is more likely. When Guillaume asked the same question Modigliani, who perhaps had been hoping to be asked about sculpture, nevertheless admitted that he did paint “a bit.” He complained to Jacob about it afterward. But he did accept the invitation and Guillaume did, indeed, become his new agent.
Like Derain and Giorgio de Chirico, whom Guillaume also represented, Modigliani painted several portraits of his dealer. Guillaume, who dressed with fastidious attention to detail, was as short as Modigliani but not as good-looking. The proportions of his face were against him—cheekbones too wide, forehead much too low— and he had a certain humorless habit of parting his hair strictly in the middle and plastering it down, something that may have made him look older but did nothing to correct the imbalance. He took to wearing hats with sizable crowns, which solved the problem of proportions, and two of Modigliani’s portraits show him hatted. On a portrait painted in 1915 Modigliani has appended “Novo Piloto,” and that was literally true. Modigliani desperately needed a guiding hand along with the publicity only a clever dealer could provide. A year later, Guillaume is still wearing a hat and an arm rests negligently along the back of his chair. A right hand is visible, and just below it, Modigliani has signed his name. Did he feel he was under Guillaume’s thumb? Was he being sufficiently grateful? An article written by Guillaume some months after Modigliani’s death in 1920 offers some clues.
“Because he was very poor and got drunk whenever he could, (Modigliani) was despised for a long time,” Guillaume wrote, “even among artists, where certain forms of prejudice are more prevalent than is generally believed . . . He was shy and refined—a gentleman. But his clothes did not reflect this, and if someone happened to offer him charity, he would become terribly annoyed.” Who could forget his “strange habit of dressing like a beggar” that nevertheless “gave him a certain elegance, a distinction—nobility in the style of Milord d’Arsouille that was astonishing and sometimes frightening. One only had to hear him pompously reciting Dante in front of the Rotonde, after brasseries closed, deaf to the insults of the waiters, indifferent to the rain that soaked him to the bone.”
One spring day in 1914 Alberto Magnelli, an Italian artist four years Modigliani’s junior, who happened to be in Paris studying Cubism, was strolling along the boulevard Montparnasse in a westerly direction toward the railway station. It was a beautiful morning, and he was thinking of other things when he realized that the conductor of a tram, also traveling in his direction, was ringing his bell violently and simultaneously applying his brakes with a great screeching noise. He looked up and saw a man on the opposite sidewalk crossing the street in front of the tram, walking like an automaton straight toward it. He was bound to be hit. With a start, Magnelli realized it was Modigliani.
In a flash Magnelli had sprinted across the street and flung himself at Modigliani, whose eyes looked glassy and enormous. He wrote, “I do not know how I managed to get in front of him in time.” He was so close to the tram that it scraped him as it passed. As for Modigliani, he had been knocked to the ground and seemed, at that moment, to have come to his senses. He was helped over to the sidewalk and the nearest café table, which happened to be at the Rotonde. Magnelli ordered a round of drinks. About his narrow escape from death, Modigliani did not say a word.